Dellin Betances isn’t the only Yankee who could play in the 2017 WBC

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

In a few weeks baseball players all around the league will leave their teams in Spring Training to participate in the fourth edition of the World Baseball Classic. Pool play begins March 6th in South Korea, and the tournament will end with the Championship Game at Dodger Stadium on March 22nd. Here is the full 2017 WBC schedule.

The 16 countries do not have to finalize their WBC rosters until January, though we already know Dellin Betances will pitch for the Dominican Republic. He committed to them recently. Betances was on Team USA’s preliminary roster but instead choose to honor his family by pitching for the Dominican Republic squad. So far he’s the only Yankees player to commit to the WBC.

The Yankees are not as star-laden as they once were — a few years ago a case could have been made their entire starting infield belonged in the WBC — so they don’t figure to send a ton of players to the WBC next spring. Chances are Betances won’t be the only Yankee to participatein the event, however. In fact, farmhand Dante Bichette Jr. already played for Brazil in the qualifying round in September. Who knew? (Brazil did not advance.)

So, as we wait for the commitments to trickle in and the final rosters to be announced, lets look at the Yankees who could wind up joining Betances and participating in the WBC. Keep in mind the WBC is not limited to big league players — some countries can’t field an entire roster of MLB players, hence Bichette playing for Brazil — and the rosters are 28 players deep, not 25, so there are extra spots.

Canada: Evan Rutckyj

Rutckyj, who recently re-signed with the Yankees as a minor league free agent, was the team’s 16th round pick back in 2010. The Braves took a look at him this past spring as a Rule 5 Draft pick, but Rutckyj failed to make the Opening Day roster and instead returned to the Yankees. He struck out 14 in 11.2 innings around a relatively minor elbow procedure during the 2016 regular season.

Only eleven pitchers born in Canada have appeared in the big leagues over the last three years — only seven did so in 2016 — and five of those eleven threw fewer than 20 innings. Three of the other six are now retired (Erik Bedard, Jeff Francis, Phillippe Aumont). Rutckyj, who grew up across the river from Detroit in Windsor, has had some Double-A success as a reliever and could make a Canada roster that has been heavy on minor league pitchers in previous WBCs.

Colombia: Tito Polo, Carlos Vidal

Colombia clinched their first ever WBC berth by winning their qualifying round back in March. They won a pool that included France, Spain, and Panama. Both Polo and Vidal were on Colombia’s roster for the qualifying round and chances are they will be on the actual WBC roster as well. Only six Colombian-born players appeared in MLB in 2016, one of whom was Donovan Solano and none of whom were an outfielder like Polo and Vidal.

Vidal, 20, has spent most of his career with the various short season league teams in New York’s farm system. He went 2-for-8 with a double and played in all three qualifying games in March. Polo, 22, came over from the Pirates in the Ivan Nova trade. He was Colombia’s extra outfielder in the qualifying round. He appeared in two games as a a pinch-runner and defensive replacement and did not get an at-bat. Both Vidal and Polo figure to play in the WBC in March.

Dominican Republic: Gary Sanchez (Starlin Castro?)

WBC teammates? (Rich Schultz/Getty)
WBC teammates? (Rich Schultz/Getty)

Over the last three seasons, the leader in bWAR among Dominican-born catchers is Welington Castillo. Sanchez is second. For all the great baseball players to come out of the Dominican Republic, the island hasn’t produced much catching talent in recent years. Their catching tandem in the 2013 WBC was Francisco Pena, Tony’s son, and Carlos Santana, who is no longer a catcher.

The Dominican Republic’s current catching pool includes Sanchez, Castillo, Pena, Pedro Severino of the Nationals, and Alberto Rosario of the Cardinals. I have to think they want Sanchez and Castillo there. Then again, Tony might want Francisco on the roster, and I’m sure the Yankees would rather Sanchez spend his first Spring Training as the No. 1 catcher learning the pitching staff.

The Yankees can’t stop Gary from going to the WBC if he’s invited though. They might need Pena to pull some strings, which would be kind of a dick move. I’m sure Sanchez would love to play. Bottom line: Sanchez is arguably the best Dominican catcher in baseball right now and inarguably one of the two best. In what is intended to be a best vs. best tournament, Gary belongs on the Dominican Republic roster.

(For what it’s worth, Victor Baez reports Pena promised Sanchez he would be considered for the WBC team, but acknowledged things may change before the final roster is submitted.)

As for Castro, he has an awful lot of competition on the Dominican Republic middle infield. Robinson Cano is the presumed starter at second with someone like Jose Reyes or Jean Segura at short. Jonathan Villar, Jose Ramirez, Eduardo Nunez, Jhonny Peralta, and some others are WBC candidates too. Castro’s a possibility for the tournament but probably isn’t part of the club’s Plan A infield.

Japan: Masahiro Tanaka

Interestingly enough, not a single MLB player was on Japan’s roster for the 2013 WBC. Not even Ichiro Suzuki. They filled their entire roster with NPB players. Japan has had big leaguers on their roster in previous WBCs, including Ichiro and Daisuke Matsuzaka, just not in the last one. Will they invite big leaguers this time? I honestly have no idea. We’re going to have to wait and find out.

If Japan does want current MLB players, Tanaka figures to be near the top of their list. He’s one of the best pitchers in baseball and on the very short list of the best Japanese-born pitchers on the planet. The Yankees can’t stop Tanaka from playing in the 2017 WBC. Brian Cashman confirmed it during his end-of-season press conference. Needless to say, the thought of Tanaka suffering an injury during the WBC is enough to make you squeamish. The Yankees have already been through that once before, with Mark Teixeira and his wrist in the 2013 WBC.

For what it’s worth, Tanaka has participated in the WBC twice before. He was on Japan’s roster in both 2009 and 2013, throwing 9.1 total innings across one start and seven relief appearances. Maybe that was enough for Tanaka? Maybe he’s had his fill of the WBC — Japan won the 2009, so he has a championship — and would rather focus on the Yankees in Spring Training and putting himself in the best position to use his opt-out the team in the best position to win? Gosh, I hope so.

Mexico: Luis Cessa, Gio Gallegos

Fifteen pitchers born in Mexico have appeared in the big leagues over the last three seasons, and 13 of those 15 did so in 2016. The two exceptions are ex-Yankees: Manny Banuelos and Al Aceves. Banuelos is coming off another injury and Aceves spent the 2016 season in the Mexican League. Mexico figures to try to build their WBC rotation from a group that includes Marco Estrada, Julio Urias, Jorge De La Rosa, Yovani Gallardo, Jaime Garcia, and Miguel Gonzalez.

Cessa and Gallegos — fun fact: the Yankees signed Gallegos away from a Mexican League team as part of a package deal with Banuelos and Aceves in 2007 — could be candidates for Mexico’s bullpen. Especially Cessa since he has MLB experience. Gallegos might not get much consideration given the fact he has yet to pitch in the show. Roberto Osuna, Joakim Soria, and Oliver Perez are likely to be Mexico’s late-inning relievers, but they’re going to need other pitchers for middle relief, especially early in the tournament when starters have limited pitch counts.

Keep in mind both Cessa and Gallegos figure to come to Spring Training with a chance to win an Opening Day roster spot. Cessa will be among those competing for a rotation spot, which is kind of a big deal. Gallegos, who the Yankees added to the 40-man roster earlier this month to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft, is trying to reach the show for the first time. As much as I’m sure both guys would love to represent their country in the WBC, they would be better off hanging around Spring Training and focusing on winning a roster spot with the Yankees at this point of their careers.

Netherlands: Didi Gregorius

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

The Dutch team has had to rely heavily on players from Honkbal Hoofdklasse, the highest level of pro ball in the Netherlands, to fill their WBC roster in the past. The same figures to be true this year. Only six Dutch players have played in MLB the last two years: Gregorius, Andrelton Simmons, Xander Bogaerts, Jonathan Schoop, Jurickson Profar, and Kenley Jansen. So, if nothing else, the Netherlands doesn’t have to worry about their infield or closer. They’ll need Honkballers in the outfield and rotation.

It’s entirely possible the Netherlands will look to take all five of those infielders to the WBC because, well, they’re the best players the country has to offer. Profar has played first base and Bogaerts has played third, so the starting infield could very well be those two on the corners with the other three guys splitting time up the middle and at DH. Gregorius was not on the 2013 WBC roster, and with his Yankees roster spot secure, he could jump at the opportunity to play for the Netherlands.

Team USA: Tyler Clippard (Brett Gardner? Jacoby Ellsbury?)

Even with Betances committing to the Dominican Republic, Team USA’s potential bullpen is insane. Zach Britton closing with Andrew Miller and Craig Kimbrel setting up, Wade Davis as the fireman, Mark Melancon and Tony Watson as the middle relievers … goodness. What are the odds of that happening though? Extremely small. Some of those guys are going to pass on the tournament. Happens every WBC.

The Team USA bullpen in 2013 included Kimbrel and, uh, Luke Gregerson? Tim Collins? Mitchell Boggs? Vinnie Pestano? Yup. Yup yup yup. Team USA’s leader in relief innings in 2013 was Ross Detwiler. So yeah. The odds of a super-bullpen are so very small. Clippard could be among the club’s Plan B or C relievers. Team USA is going to miss out on a ton of the top guys, no doubt, so who’s next in line? Clippard could be one of them.

Along those same lines, I suppose Gardner and/or Ellsbury could receive outfield consideration if enough top guys drop out. We already know Mike Trout and Bryce Harper are passing on the tournament. Team USA would need to receive a lot of “nos” before considering Ellsbury and Gardner for their outfield — they ranked 12th and 20th in bWAR among American-born outfielders in 2016 — but hey, you never know.

* * *

The Yankees are said to have interest in bringing Carlos Beltran back, and I have to think he will suit up for Puerto Rico in the WBC next spring. The next generation of Puerto Rican stars has arrived (Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Javier Baez) but Beltran is still insanely popular in Puerto Rico, and he usually gives the people what they want. Aroldis Chapman, on the other hand, won’t pitch for Cuba regardless of whether he returns to the Yankees. No expatriates on the national team.

The Fill-In Starters [2016 Season Review]

(Presswire)
Green. (Presswire)

For the 19th consecutive season, the Yankees used at least eight different starting pitchers in 2016. They actually used nine this year. All nine made at least five starts too, so that number isn’t skewed by some random September call-up who made a spot start in Game 162 or something like that. The Yankees used nine starters this year and they needed all of ’em.

Late in the season, after the rotation was thinned out by injuries (Nathan Eovaldi) and trades (Ivan Nova) and ineffectiveness (Luis Severino), the Yankees turned to a trio of young pitchers to shore things up: Luis Cessa, Chad Green, and Bryan Mitchell. Cessa and Green both came over in the Justin Wilson trade last offseason. Mitchell? He’s been around for a while now. The Yankees drafted him in 2009. All three had their moments this year.

The Work In Progress

Lots of eyebrows were raised when the Yankees traded Wilson last offseason, especially since they sent Adam Warren to the Cubs for Starlin Castro literally one day earlier. Just like that, two of Joe Girardi‘s four most trusted relievers were gone. The Yankees felt they needed rotation depth though — were they right or what? geez — so Wilson was traded for two Triple-A starting pitching prospects.

The lower ranked of the two, at least according to various scouting publications, was Green, a former 11th round pick who had a 3.93 ERA (3.22 FIP) in Double-A last season. Not the sexiest prospect, you know? The Yankees sent the 25-year-old right-hander to Triple-A to start the year, as expected, and holy crap, he dominated. Green had a 1.52 ERA (2.17 FIP) in 94.2 innings for the RailRiders. A total of 649 pitchers threw at least 90 innings in the minors this summer. Green ranked third in ERA and second in FIP.

The Yankees called Green up in early-May to make a spot start not because someone was hurt. They just wanted to give the rest of the rotation an extra day to rest. It wasn’t a “we need someone and he’s available” call-up. Green pitched well and the Yankees gave him a chance. The spot start didn’t go well — six runs (four earned) in four innings against the Diamondbacks — and that’s usually what happens. Green wasn’t the first guy to get lit up in his debut and he won’t be the last.

After a return trip to Triple-A, the Yankees brought Green back in early-July to make another spot start, this time because they didn’t want CC Sabathia and his balky knee to hit and run the bases in San Diego. Green pitched very well, allowing one run on three hits in six innings against the Padres. He struck out eight and didn’t walk anyone. That earned him another start and … the Indians clobbered him for seven runs in 4.1 innings. Four homers too. Three in the first inning!

The Yankees could have easily — and justifiably — sent Green to Triple-A after that, but they didn’t. They kept him around as a long reliever and he pitched well, throwing 8.1 scoreless innings across three appearances following the All-Star break. The Eovaldi injury and Nova trade opened up rotation spots, so Green got another chance. His best start of the season, by far, came against the Blue Jays on August 15th. Eleven strikeouts in six innings of two-hit ball. How about that?

Green remained in the rotation really because the Yankees didn’t have any other options, but also because he earned it by pitching well through August. Unfortunately, his season came to a premature end on September 2nd, when Green left a start against the Orioles with pain in his elbow after only 1.2 innings.

The injury was later diagnosed as a sprained ulnar collateral ligament and a strained flexor tendon. That sounds bad and it is, don’t get me wrong, but the sprain and strain were relatively minor. They ended Green’s season but he didn’t need surgery and is expected to be ready for Spring Training. He had resumed playing catch even before the end of the regular season. Sucks, but at least his rehab seems to be going well.

All told, Green had a 4.73 ERA (5.34 FIP) in 45.2 innings spread across eight starts and four relief appearances with the Yankees this season. He missed a lot of bats (26.3%) and did a good enough job limiting walks (7.6%), but Green didn’t get grounders (41.3%) and didn’t keep the ball in the park (2.36 HR/9). Yikes. Here are the all-important left/right splits:

BF AVG/OBP/SLG wOBA K% BB% GB% HR/9
vs. RHB 103 .253/.311/.394 .306 25.2% 7.8% 47.1% 1.13
vs. LHB 95 .287/.351/.663 .421 27.4% 7.4% 34.5% 3.74

So yeah, Green really needs to figure out a changeup. I don’t think his true talent level is a 3.74 HR/9 (!) against lefties, but still, he needs something to combat them. He can bust them inside with cutters, but that only works so much. Green can get righties out. He has the slider for that. But he has nothing that moves away from lefties to stay off the barrel. Getting that changeup going is priority No. 1.

To Green’s credit, he came over from the Tigers as a work in progress and he did make strides this season. He added the cutter — “From my last outing, I added a cutter. I’ve been working on that the past couple of weeks. I think that made a big difference, being able to throw that for strikes,” said Green after his start in San Diego — and he’s also improved his slider since Spring Training.

“Everything’s gotten better,” said Girardi following the Blue Jays game when asked about Green’s slider. “We loved his arm, and that’s why we traded for him. Each time, he took his demotion the right way and said, this is what I need to work on and I’m going to get better. He never got down on himself, never hung his head and just went to work. And he works extremely hard.”

At this point, Green is a four-pitch pitcher with three fastballs (four-seam, two-seam, cutter) and a slider. He has velocity too. His four-seamer averaged 94.4 mph this year and topped out 98.7 mph. That’s a pretty great starting point. The changeup is the big question. Green does throw one — you can see it at the 1:04 mark of the video above — but it’s not consistent enough. It needs to improve.

Depending how the offseason shakes out, the Yankees figure to give Green the opportunity to compete for a rotation spot in Spring Training, assuming he’s healthy. And if that doesn’t work out, he could land in the bullpen. Triple-A is another option. Lots of possibilities here. Green has some lively stuff and he seems to be a quick learner and hard worker. Hopefully those traits mean more progress is coming.

The Ex-Shortstop (And Current TV Analyst)

Cessa. (Presswire)
Cessa. (Presswire)

The more well-known player of the two prospects the Yankees received in the Wilson trade was Cessa, not that he was a top prospect or anything. It was the second time Cessa had been traded in six months; he and AL Rookie of the Year candidate (favorite?) Michael Fulmer went from the Mets to the Tigers for Yoenis Cespedes at the deadline last summer. The Tigers then flipped Cessa for a bullpen arm, which they always seem to need.

Cessa, a former shortstop who converted to pitching in 2011, was impressive in Spring Training, allowing just three runs in ten innings across five outings. All the damage came in one game too. In the other four, he allowed two hits and a walk in eight scoreless innings while striking out eight. Cessa impressed enough with his stuff and results to land a spot on the Opening Day roster. He was in the bullpen to start the season.

The stint on the big league team didn’t last very long. Cessa made his MLB debut on April 8th, in the fourth game of the season, and allowed one run on a Miguel Cabrera homer in two innings. After that, the Yankees figured Cessa was better off in Triple-A, where he could start and pitch regularly, rather than sit in the big league bullpen and pitch sparingly. He’s a young man and he needed to pitch. Mop-up duty wasn’t a good role for him.

Cessa spent the next four months or so riding the Scranton shuttle. He returned to the big leagues briefly in May, and again in late-June and early-July when a fresh arm was needed. In the meantime, Cessa pitched to a 3.03 ERA (3.62 FIP) in 77.1 innings in 14 starts and one relief appearance with the RailRiders. He didn’t have the easiest schedule. Cessa bounced from Triple-A starter to MLB reliever several times in the first half. That was his role.

It wasn’t until late-August that Cessa got a chance to start with the big league team. Eovaldi was hurt, Nova was traded, and Severino pitched himself out of the rotation, so the Yankees gave Cessa an opportunity. He earned it by pitching well in Triple-A and in several short stints in the Bronx. His first start was his best. Cessa threw six shutout innings against the Angels on August 20th. He fanned five, walked one, and allowed three hits.

Cessa remained in the rotation the rest of the season and he pitched well. Better than I think many realize. He made nine starts for the Yankees, allowed more than three runs only twice, and four times he held the other team to two runs or less. Cessa also completed five innings in each of his nine starts, which doesn’t sound like anything special, but the Yankees didn’t get a whole lot of length from their other young starters in 2016.

All told, Cessa finished the season with a 4.35 ERA (5.52 FIP) in 70.1 innings spread across nine starts and six relief appearances. That includes 4.01 ERA (5.14 FIP) in 51.2 innings as a starting pitcher. Three things stood out to me about Cessa.

1. He throws four pitches. Unlike Green, who spent part of the season learning a cutter and still needs to work on his changeup, Cessa already has four pitches, and he threw all of them during his nine-start cameo. It’s the standard four-pitch mix. Here’s how often he threw each pitch as a starter, via Brooks Baseball:

  • Four-Seam Fastball: 48.6%
  • Slider: 30.3%
  • Curveball: 11.1%
  • Changeup: 9.9%

The slider is Cessa’s best secondary pitch and his go-to offering in big spots. He’s not shy about using his changeup or curveball though. He uses them regularly. Hitters are going to see four pitches from Cessa. They can’t sit fastball-slider or fastball-changeup or whatever. They have to be ready for everything else as well. Cessa had good velocity as a starter — his heater averaged 95.0 mph and topped out at 98.3 mph in his nine starts — and he definitely has a deep enough repertoire to remain in the rotation.

2. He can be really efficient. Girardi had a pretty quick hook with Cessa at times this year, rarely allowing him to face the middle of the lineup a third time, which I can understand with a young pitcher. Cessa still did a very nice job limiting his pitches and being efficient. He averaged only 14.7 pitches per inning and 3.69 pitches per plate appearance as a starter. The MLB averages are 16.8 and 3.95, respectively. Only three times in his nine starts did he throw more than 85 pitches, yet he still never once threw fewer than five full innings. Cessa was a breath of fresh air in a world of young pitchers on pitch counts.

3. He didn’t miss many bats or limit homers. It isn’t all good news, obviously. Four pitches and efficiency are nice, but they didn’t lead to strikeouts (16.1%) or grounders (43.2%). Cessa didn’t walk many (4.9%), so that’s cool, but he also had a hard time keeping the ball in the park (2.05 HR/9). He allowed homers in all but two of his nine starts. Eleven times he was taken deep in 51.2 innings as a starter, which works out to 1.92 HR/9.

Everyone gave up more home runs this year, balls were flying out of the ballpark, but a 2.05 HR/9 is rather extreme. Yankee Stadium plays a role in that, so it’s no surprise Cessa was more homer prone against left-handed batters, who can take aim at the short porch.

BF AVG/OBP/SLG wOBA K% BB% GB% HR/9
vs. RHB 167 .242/.289/.439 .311 15.0% 4.2% 42.7% 1.77
vs. LHB 118 .234/.280/.486 .324 17.8% 5.9% 43.8% 2.43

Cessa’s platoon split is not nearly as drastic as Green’s. That’s what having four pitches does for you. A right-handed pitcher giving up a lot of homers to left-handed hitters in Yankee Stadium is not exactly uncommon, though Cessa also had his trouble with righties too. It seems like a simple location issue. Here are the pitch locations of the 16 home runs he allowed in the big leagues, via Baseball Savant.

Luis Cessa home runs

Yeah. Fastballs down the middle tend to get hit a long way. Can’t throw them there, Luis. Cessa has the tools to start. I really believe that. The guy has four pitches he throws regularly, he pitches inside, and he throws strikes. So he was homer prone and didn’t miss as many bats as you’d like in his first nine big league starts. Welcome to the club. Tons of guys have done the same. All things considered, I liked what I saw from him in those nine starts.

Cessa finished the season healthy — he started Game 162 and threw 147.2 total innings in 2016, a new career high but not by a lot (139.1 in 2015) — so the 24-year-old is in position to throw upwards of 180 innings next year. That’s pretty great. Cessa is actually doing television work at the moment, broadcasting the World Series for FOX Sports Latin America …

(Phot via Erik Boland)
(Photo via Erik Boland)

… and it’s safe to assume he’ll come to Spring Training with a chance to compete for a rotation spot. He might even be the favorite for a rotation spot over others like Green, Severino, and Mitchell. Cessa performed the best out of all of them this past season, and his present skill set suggests he’s most likely to have success as a starter in the immediate future.

The Broken Toe That Sabotaged A Season

The Spring Training competition for the fifth starter’s spot was a two-man race between Nova and Sabathia. Had it been a three-man competition, Bryan Mitchell would have won. Mitchell was marvelous in camp, allowing one run on seven hits and three walks in 15.2 innings. He fanned 12. Beyond the numbers, his stuff was crisp and he seemed to be locating better than he had at any point in the previous two years with the Yankees.

Mitchell made the Opening Day roster, which wasn’t a shock given his Grapefruit League performance. He was going to be in the bullpen and was the early favorite to assume Adam Warren’s super utility reliever role. Instead, Mitchell managed to break his left big toe covering first base in his final Grapefruit League outing. He took a misstep and the bone cracked. Total fluke injury. The fracture required surgery and sidelined Mitchell for four freakin’ months.

“I felt something, but I definitely didn’t think it was this severe, given that I could still get over to the base and all that,” said Mitchell after the injury. “I’m not trying to be too roller coaster right now. Just have to roll with it. It’s just a bump in the road and we’ll get past it, hopefully quicker than later … It really hasn’t sunk in yet. But it’s tough right now.”

Mitchell. (Presswire)
Mitchell. (Presswire)

It wasn’t until August 8th that Mitchell pitched in his first minor league rehab game. He kept his arm in shape by throwing while sitting in a chair before finally being cleared to play catch and throw off a mound. Mitchell made four minor league rehab starts, reportedly looked as rusty as you’d expect, then was activated off the 60-day DL and optioned to Triple-A Scranton on August 24th.

The Yankees originally planned to keep Mitchell down through the end of the Triple-A postseason so he could start every fifth day, but after Green hurt his elbow, they called him up and stuck him in the rotation. Because he did not spend 20 days in the minors on an optional assignment — most of it was injury rehab — Mitchell did not burn a minor league option this year. He still has one for next season.

Anyway, Mitchell’s first big league start came against the Blue Jays on September 7th, and it went about as well as you could have hoped: four hits and two walks in five scoreless innings. He struck out five. His next two starts were duds (six runs in 2.1 innings and four runs in 4.2 innings) and that wasn’t too surprising. The Dodgers and Red Sox loaded their lineups with lefties and Mitchell paid the price.

Mitchell’s most impressive outings were his final two. On September 23rd, at a raucous Rogers Centre, the Blue Jays worked Mitchell hard and scored three runs in the first two innings. He threw 46 pitches to get six outs. It was all set up to be a short night, but Mitchell settled down, retired ten of the final 13 batters he faced, and completed six full innings. He showed some gumption against a good team in a hostile environment.

Then, five days later, Mitchell had his best start as a big leaguer, when he held the Red Sox to two hits in seven scoreless innings. The Yankees almost wasted that effort, but thankfully Mark Teixeira came up with the walk-off grand slam. Here is the inexplicably unembeddable video of Mitchell’s night. This was a really tough season for Mitchell overall thanks to the toe injury, but at least he was able to end it on a really positive note. That start must have felt great.

Overall, Mitchell finished the season 3.24 ERA (4.23 FIP) in five starts and 25 innings. The good news: he got grounders (48.2%) and kept the ball in the park (0.36 HR/9). The bad news: he walked (11.2%) more batters than he struck out (10.3%). That’s a big problem. Can’t be successful walking more batters than you strike out. Mitchell has good stuff. Or, rather, he has two good pitches in his fastball and curveball. He should, in theory, be able to miss bats with those pitches.

The fastball and curveball are Mitchell’s only two reliable pitches, however. His third pitch is his cutter and that’s pretty much the only thing he has to attack left-handed batters because his changeup is not good. So not good he doesn’t even bother to throw it. Losing most of this season is pretty unfortunate. Mitchell would have had a chance to continue working on things. Instead, he lost all that development time.

As with Green and Cessa, I expect Mitchell to come to camp with a chance to win a rotation spot. If that doesn’t work, he could wind up in the bullpen, which was the plan this year before the injury. Of the three guys in this post, I have the most confidence in Cessa remaining a starter long-term and it’s not all that close. Green and Mitchell have more work to do, but I do think that if neither can hack it in the rotation, they can be quality short relievers.

A Spectrum of Expectations

This year's rookie hazing theme: Baby Bombers! (@Yankees)
This year’s rookie hazing theme: Baby Bombers! (@Yankees)

If you’re reading this site, then it you would probably find it superfluous for me to rehash the success the Yankees had when it came to integrating young talent into the Major League team or adding it to the minor league system. And it would also be repetitive to parrot the lines about excitement going forward, 2017 and beyond. Of those two things, though, I’d rather do the latter. When it comes to young players, talking about the future is always more fun than talking about the past, however recent.

Two players in particular are going to have quite lofty expectations thrown on them on 2017. In the minors, there’s Gleyber Torres, who more than held his own in a league in which he was almost four years younger than the average age. People are going to expect big things from him going forward, and I suppose I can’t blame them. He’ll be, however, just 20 years old for all of next season. On the Major League side of things, there’s Gary Sanchez.

Rookie of the Decade. (Jim McIsaac/Getty)
Rookie of the Decade. (Jim McIsaac/Getty)

Whatever adjectives you want to use to describe El Gary’s 2016 are fine with me and likely don’t even do it justice. To an even greater degree than Torres, Sanchez tore up a league he wasn’t supposed to yet, forcing himself into AL Rookie of the Year talks despite just two months of playing time. I’m worried that a segment of fans–not the ones who read this site, really–will be disappointed in Sanchez unless he puts up some ridiculous, Mike Piazza-like year. In reality, if Sanchez just repeats what he did this year over a full year, that would be pretty remarkable in and of itself. Offense like that doesn’t come from a catcher too often.

When it comes to players like Aaron Judge, Luis Cessa, and Chad Green, improvement ought to be the expectation. For Cessa and Green, that improvement needs to come in the form of pitching well enough for their roles to be defined. This does and should leave some wiggle room for them to be considered successful in 2017, whether that’s as starters or relievers. For Judge, the improvement needed is obvious: he has to make more contact and cut down on the strikeouts.

Then there’s Luis Severino. I have no earthly idea what to expect from this guy going forward. Were he to bounce back and show his 2015 form more often, I wouldn’t be shocked. Were he to repeat 2016, I wouldn’t be surprised either. But in my gut of guts, heart of hearts, whatever you want to call it, I’m expecting Severino to turn into a reliever by the end of 2017. Maybe that’s overly pessimistic, but…what else can I expect after a year of no consistent third pitch?

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

The young players in the Yankee organization are the ones that will determine its success in the coming years. With a team less reliant on old talent as those players age out, the performances of the relatively inexperienced will matter all that much more. It’s never easy to set expectations for players and there’s always a range of possibilities; hopefully, they come up more positive than negative.

Goal for 2017: Reduce Roundtrippers

(Brian Blanco/Getty)
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

Yankee pitchers over the last few years have been generally good at two things: limiting walks and striking batters out. If there are two skills you want pitchers to have, those two would be pretty good. Both skills combine to minimize runners on base and put little stress on the fielders and the pitchers themselves. In 2016, though, the third component of defense independent pitching–limiting home runs–was severely lacking.

Among the Major League leaders, the Yankees were, well, not leaders. Despite ranking only 13th in the league in FB% overall (so just about average), the only team worse in HR/FB% than the Yankees and their 15.5% mark was Cincinnati Reds and their 15.9% tally. In fact, the Yankees were the only AL team with a HR/FB% over 14%; the Twins clocked in at second worse in the AL at 13.9%. To state the obvious, when you’re near the 2016 Twins in some statistical category, you’re probably not doing a good job. To state the obvious yet again, this is something that needs to get better in 2017.

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

Luckily for the Yankees, the homer happiness may improve by subtraction alone next season. The biggest culprits in surrendering homers on fly balls were Ivan Nova (21.3%) and Nathan Eovaldi (18.7%), both of whom won’t be on the Yankees next year for one reason or another. Unfortunately, three fifths of their potential rotation for 2017 was dismal at keeping the ball in the yard in 2016.

Michael Pineda clocked in at 17% with Luis Severino and Luis Cessa tipping the scales at 16.4% and 19.5% respectively. Severino’s number is skewed slightly, as he didn’t give up a homer as a reliever; as a starter, his HR/FB% was 22.9% (!). Cessa’s numbers were a bit more balanced: 19.3% as a starter, 20% as a reliever.

Luis Cessa Corey Dickerson

In terms of pitches, the culprits for the homers for Pineda and Cessa are split between two. For Pineda, they’re the slider and the cutter; this is problematic because those are the pitches he throws most often. Cessa’s fastball and curveball are taking the brunt of punishment from hitters. Severino’s fastball is the root of all home run evil for him.

Whether it’s varying their selection, improving their location, or perhaps hiding these pitches better, all three righties need to do something to keep the ball in the park in 2017. Chances are, they’ll all be called on to do some heavy lifting for the Yankee pitching staff in 2017 and another year of giving homers left and right is not going to cut it. Like this past season, the margins between success and failure are going to be razor thin next year and the Yankees will need to stifle any hiccups in pitching performance or they could be looking at another year of mediocrity.

Finding Success

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

One way or another, the 2016 season is going to end in a week’s time. Chances are, the Yankees will be packing up their lockers and heading to their respective corners of vacation, golf, and other recreational activities as their counterparts on other teams bask in the stressful glow of October baseball. There was a time when we’d consider such a happening an unwavering failure for the Bombers. But from this endpoint, it’s hard to look back and consider 2016 anything other than an unmitigated success for our boys in pinstripes.

Coming into this season, the Yankees were a flawed and fairly incomplete team, relying on continued high-level performances from Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira to anchor the offense; they were also expecting Luis Severino to build off of a positive end to 2015 and emerge as a force in the rotation to back up Masahiro Tanaka. If all of that happened, they were looking at the playoffs, even if in the form of the Wild Card game once again.

Literally none of those things happened. A-Rod didn’t even last the full season; Tex announced his retirement and has looked like a shell of himself most of the time; and Severino looked more like 2008 Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy than 2015 Luis Severino. But, a funny thing happened on the way to a playoff-less season: the Yankees found success in other avenues.

Masahiro Tanaka
(Getty)

Masahiro Tanaka has had a fantastic season and is a contender for the AL Cy Young Award. He came into the year as the Yankees’ rotation rock and lasted the entire way as such. As his pitching went, generally, so did the Yankees; he was the one reliable starter they had and he was as good as gold.

While he wasn’t up to his career standard — and likely never will be again — CC Sabathia had a bounceback year, posting (to date) a 104 ERA+, a far better showing than 2013-15’s marks of 84, 73, and 86. Watching him find success again was a pleasure, given all he’s meant to the Yankees since 2009.

When it was clear that 2016 wasn’t likely to end in much more than a lack of playoffs, the Yankees found success on the trade market. However much it hurt to watch a guy as good — in more ways than pitching — as Andrew Miller leave the club — with Aroldis Chapman and Carlos Beltran departing as well — the restocking and rearming the Yankee farm system went through in the summer was more than worth it. By shedding those players, the Yankees help set themselves up for success in 2017 and beyond.

This year's rookie hazing theme: Baby Bombers! (@Yankees)
(@Yankees)

Of course, nothing did that quite as much as the successes of the Baby Bombers, led by Gary Sanchez‘s remarkable display of power. While his performance in 2016 was more sustained, Aaron Judge, Tyler Austin, Luis Cessa, and Chad Green all had flashes of brilliance that give promise to 2017. Sanchez’s spark gave the Yankees a surprise run towards the second wild card that will probably fall just short, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t fun to watch. How often does a team sell at the deadline, then compete for the playoffs anyway?

This all begs the question of what a successful 2017 will look like for the Yankees. From a team and competition standpoint, it’s hard to see things looking much different than this year. The team going into 2017 is likely to be flawed enough — especially in the rotation — that a shot at the playoffs is all that could be expected.

Individually speaking, there is plenty to look forward to. Continued excellence from Gary Sanchez is obviously one of those things. We should, however, temper our expectations. While he’ll likely finish this partial season with 20 or more homers, we must remember that if he hits “only” that many in a full season next year, it’s still a great thing for a young catcher.

For Aaron Judge, success will be ironing out the hole in his swing and winning the right field job out of Spring Training.

For the young pitchers — Severino and Cessa, in particular — success will be finding a role. Both can do that by improving their secondary pitches to the point where turning over a lineup is a probability, not just a possibility. The more success they have in this endeavor, the more success the Yankees will have as a team.

The Yankees are running out of starting pitching at the worst possible time

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

For the third time in the last five games, the Yankees’ starting pitcher failed to complete five innings last night. The Dodgers contact-bombed Bryan Mitchell — he got only three swings and misses out of 47 pitches — for eight hits and six runs (two earned) in only 2.1 innings. That came three days after Michael Pineda couldn’t finish five innings with a five-run lead and four days after CC Sabathia struggled to complete four innings.

The rotation outside Masahiro Tanaka has been a problem most of the season. The staff doesn’t have a 4.58 ERA (4.37 FIP) by accident. Not 143 games into the season. Remove Tanaka from the mix and all the other starters have a 5.04 ERA (4.58 FIP) in 626.1 innings. That’s 626.1 innings of meh. Sabathia and some others had their moments earlier this season, but, by and large, the rotation has been a liability, not a strength.

Rosters have expanded and the Yankees are carrying 13 relievers, so they have enough arms to soak up whatever innings need to be soaked up. Of course, no manager actually wants to use his September call-up relievers, at least not this often, including Joe Girardi. Every manager wants their starter to hand the ball off to their usual late-inning relievers. The Yankees haven’t been able to do that much lately, and there’s no help coming for two reasons.

1. There’s no one left to call up in Triple-A. The Yankees have more or less exhausted their rotation depth at this point. Nathan Eovaldi and Chad Green getting hurt after Ivan Nova was traded really thinned out the team’s depth. Joe Girardi admitted yesterday they originally planned to give Bryan Mitchell more time in Triple-A in the wake of his toe injury, but there was a need in the rotation due to Green’s injury, so they called him up.

The next best rotation option at this point is probably Richard Bleier, or maybe Phil Coke, who has done a nice job in the Triple-A Scranton rotation of late. Dietrich Enns is bumping up against his innings limit and has already been moved to the bullpen. Adding Jordan Montgomery to the 40-man roster a year earlier than necessary so he can make something like three starts late in the season is crappy roster management. Bleier or Coke it is, and that’s not reassuring at all.

De La Rosa. (Justin Edmonds/Getty)
De La Rosa. (Justin Edmonds/Getty)

2. There’s not much of a trade market either. The Yankees and every other team can still make trades through the trade waivers process, though whoever they acquire won’t be eligible for the postseason roster. That’s fine. They goal right now is to get to the postseason, that’s it. Right now cobbling together a postseason rotation is a problem the Yankees would be happy to deal with.

What does the starting pitcher trade market look like in September? Bleak. I’m guessing the only pitchers available are impending free agents on bad teams. That means players like Jorge De La Rosa, Andrew Cashner, and Jhoulys Chacin. Normally I’d say just stick with Luis Cessa and Mitchell, but you know what? If all it costs is a fringe prospect or cash, give me one of those guys as an extra starter for the postseason push. I’d rather have him and not need him than need him and not have him, you know?

* * *

Point is, there are no impact pitchers to be found on the trade market. Not on the trade market and likely not in the farm system either. The Yankees’ very best arms are in the big leagues right now. That’s good from a “this is the best possible team they have” perspective and bad from a “this is the best possible team they have?” perspective. You know what I mean.

With less than three weeks left in the regular season, what you see if what you’re going to get with the Yankees. If they’re going to do the improbable a qualify for the playoffs, Cessa and Mitchell and late-career Sabathia and the mystery that is Pineda are going to be the guys who get them there. Like it or not, those four plus Tanaka are the five best starting pitchers in the organization at the moment.

As injuries continue to mount in the rotation, Luis Cessa is emerging as a keeper for the Yankees

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

His performance is easy to overlook given the rest of the game, but young righty Luis Cessa turned in his fourth straight impressive start for the Yankees last night. The 24-year-old former shortstop held that ridiculously great Blue Jays’ lineup to two runs on six hits and two walks in 5.1 innings, and his defense totally sabotaged him on the second run.

Cessa came over in the Justin Wilson trade over the winter, and he actually started the season in the Opening Day bullpen. He’s spent most of the year starting in Triple-A though, which he needed to do at that point of his development. In four starts since replacing the injured Nathan Eovaldi, Cessa has allowed nine runs (eight earned) and 25 baserunners in 23.1 total innings. That’s a 3.09 ERA and 1.07 WHIP from the what, seventh starter? Eighth?

“I had a little mistake in the first inning to (Edwin) Encarnacion, but after that I stayed with the same plan we had before the game with Larry (Rothschild) and Gary (Sanchez) and a couple coaches, and just make the pitches,” said Cessa after last night’s start (video link). “After (the homer), just continue fighting. Staying on the same page with Gary is the most important thing and we did a really nice job I think.”

Cessa is not without his flaws. He’s allowed five home runs in his four starts and ten (!) in his 42 big league innings, so that’s is an obvious problem. Also, Cessa has struck out only 15 of 94 batters faced as a starter, or 17.0%, and you’d like to see that come up at some point. Overall though, Cessa has given the Yankees four nice starts and there are reasons to believe he can be part of the rotation going forward.

1. He seems to handle adversity well. Cessa was able to face a weak Angels lineup in his first big league start, and the next time put the offense but eight runs on the board against the Orioles in the first two innings. They gave him a lot of breathing room. The Yankees were able to ease Cessa into the rotation with a start against a bad team and then a ton of run support. Perfect.

The last two starts have been a bit more challenging. The Royals roughed Cessa up for four runs in the first three innings last week, including two home runs. The Yankees needed him to soak up more innings since the bullpen was taxed, and Cessa was able to settle down and retire 12 of the final 14 batters he faced to complete six full innings. Last night he gave up a monster first inning homer to Encarnacion and shook it right off.

Those are the kind of situations that can quickly unravel for a young pitcher. Giving up four runs in three innings to the defending World Series champs can spiral out of control quick. Giving up a second deck dinger to someone like Encarnacion can scare a pitcher out of the strike zone or away from the pitch that was hit out, in this case a fastball. That didn’t happen. Cessa settled down and pitched effectively the rest of the way both times. Pretty impressive.

2. He uses four pitches regularly. When the Yankees acquired Cessa, the scouting report said he threw a slider and a changeup in addition to his mid-90s fastball. We’ve seen that and more. Cessa also throws a curveball, and he throws all four of his pitches regularly too. Here is his pitch selection in his four starts:

  • Fastball: 46.4%
  • Slider: 29.2%
  • Curveball: 15.3%
  • Changeup: 9.2%

I think we’ll see more changeups going forward too. The Angels and Blue Jays both threw right-handed heavy lineups at Cessa, so he didn’t need his changeup a whole lot in two of his four starts. Once he starts facing lefties we might see the changeup a bit more.

Either way, Cessa has thrown those four pitches regularly in his four starts, and that’s a big plus. A lot of times a young pitcher comes up with a fastball and a breaking ball he trusts, and he’ll still be trying to figure out a changeup. Cessa has a deep repertoire already. That’s more than half the battle.

3. He can hold his velocity deep into games. Unless you’re a freak like Eovaldi, most pitchers lose velocity within a start as their pitch count creeps up. It’s just fatigue. It happens. The guys who go from, say, 94 mph to 90 mph have the most trouble. Cessa loses velocity like everyone else, yet in his four starts this year, he’s been able to hold mid-90s into the sixth inning. From Brooks Baseball:

Luis Cessa velocity

So far Cessa has averaged 95.6 mph in the first inning and 94.4 mph in the sixth inning in his four starts. (He’s pitched into the sixth inning in all four starts and last night was the first time he didn’t complete the sixth.) Losing roughly one mile an hour is not insignificant, though it’s not a drastic either. Sitting 94.4 mph in the sixth is plenty good enough to get outs. Cessa’s a young man and he’s very athletic — he was a shortstop, after all — so it’s not a surprise he’s strong and able to retain most of his velocity as his pitch count increases.

4. He’ll pitch inside regularly. I’m not sure how we can quantify this, but anecdotally, Cessa seems very willing to pitch inside, especially to righties. It was especially noticeable in his start against the Angels. He had no problem coming inside to set up the pitch outside and get hitters to move their feet. Cessa wasn’t trying to hit anyone. He was just taking control of the plate. It’s refreshing to see. The Yankees collectively do not seem to do enough of that as a team.

* * *

The Yankees have lost both Eovaldi and Chad Green to elbow injuries in recent weeks, plus they traded Ivan Nova, so they’ve had little choice but to give Cessa a starting spot. They’re running out of arms. He’s made the most of his opportunity so far, and he’s starting to look like a possible answer to the team’s search for controllable young pitching. Cessa won’t solve their depth issues by himself, no one will, but he does seem to have the ingredients necessary to be a big league starter. Even if he’s the fourth or fifth guy on the staff, that’s still pretty darn valuable.